Is light rail a ‘magnificent’ opportunity? These community groups don’t think so

They increase property prices, take cars off the road and governments seem keen to splash billions to roll them out in rapidly growing cities.

But light rail is facing increasingly passionate opposition in some of the very areas it’s meant to benefit.

What’s happening with light rail?

Light rail has sprung up in Canberra, Newcastle, the Gold Coast, and Sydney — where an additional line is expected to open in Parramatta next year.

Studies are also underway for potential new lines on Queensland’s Gold and Sunshine coasts, both rapidly growing cities north and south of the capital, Brisbane.

South-east Queensland’s population is set to balloon with 1.4 million new residents by 2040, so all levels of government are looking at ways to improve the liveability of cities.

Right now, the only Queensland project under construction is stage three of the light rail on the Gold Coast — a 6.7-kilometre extension of the existing 20km track, which has been in operation for almost a decade now.

The latest extension will cost $1.2 billion, $500 million more than expected. So it’s not cheap.

A $5 million business case is underway looking at the feasibility of extending the line further south to the Gold Coast Airport.

On the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane, similar investigations are being made to improve public transport offerings.

Why light rail?

Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey shared a summary of a study into the southern Gold Coast on social media recently.

These two lines from the report give an insight into the state government’s approach:

“Current urban policy is focused on creating more sustainable and liveable urban areas by consolidating land uses within existing urban areas (reducing urban sprawl) in particular around town centres and high capacity public transport nodes.

“The study found the Gold Coast Highway from Burleigh Heads to Tugun could be transformed into a high amenity community focused boulevard with priority given to walking, cycling and a world class light rail system that enhances the livability and character of the southern coastal suburbs.”

Mr Bailey has said light rail was an increasingly popular transport solution globally and pointed to the roughly 69 million trips that had been made on the first two stages of the Gold Coast light rail so far.

Is light rail just an excuse for increased development?

That is a big concern for those who don’t want it running through their areas.

But public transport works best when it is located near where people live, Cairns-based independent town planner Nikki Huddy said.

“The best public transport has density along it, that’s true,” said Ms Huddy, who recently travelled to the US to look at public transport solutions as part of a Churchill Fellowship.

“I think it’s a magnificent opportunity.”

She said light rail could help reduce traffic without impacting existing roads.

“You can run it parallel to roads and still have your traffic running its own way, so there’s no real interference between those two modes of transport,” Ms Huddy said.

“You’ve just taken how many cars off the road. It’s going to make driving better for those who want to drive. I think it’s a really good idea.”

Why don’t locals want it?

More than 600 people packed a hall on the Gold Coast at a recent light rail meeting organised by Liberal MPs Michael Hart and Karen Andrews.

The vast majority of the group was against the proposed route to the Gold Coast Airport.

Among them was Kath Down from community group Save Our Southern Gold Coast.

She said light rail would cut off access to the beach, despite most people currently having to cross four lanes of highway to get to the surf.

“They’ll lose access to things like the beaches, nippers, surf clubs, but they’ll also lose access to the trams. It really doesn’t service the majority of the population,” Ms Down said.

“It’s a ruse for overdevelopment and urban renewal to support high-rises.”

Light rail will run down the middle of this section of the Gold Coast Highway as part of stage four of the roll-out.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

Despite the light rail running down existing sections of the Gold Coast Highway, Ms Down said the project was not suitable for the southern Gold Coast.

“If you put a tram through Palm Beach, number one, it doesn’t fit,” she said.

She said the rail lines would also change the feel of the area, which was already undergoing increased development.

“We’re losing the vibe of the southern Gold Coast, we’re losing why we live here and quite frankly, locals would like excellent public transport. Light rail just isn’t excellent transport.”

What about the Sunshine Coast?

Tracey Goodwin-McDonald helped found the Sunshine Coast Mass Transit Action Group after plans were announced for improved public transport in her city.

She said a mooted 13-kilometre transit line from Maroochydore and Caloundra “starts nowhere and ends nowhere”.

Like some of those opposed to light rail on the Gold Coast, Ms Goodwin-McDonald said she supported an extension of heavy rail.

She said heavy rail on the Sunshine Coast would take pressure off the clogged Bruce Highway.

She said she was concerned that the Sunshine Coast would become more like the Gold Coast — renowned for high-rise towers near the beach.

“Light rail with the overhead wires came out in the business case, surprise surprise at 10 out of 10 and the most preferred option. The reason it [won] is because of its ability to change the urban structure.”

Ms Goodwin-McDonald said she also supported higher-density development, just not on the coastal strip.

“We do need some higher-density living, yes, but when you’re living with two-storey housing, and then they’re now looking at six-storey apartments, that’s a radical, radical change,” she said.

“So what we’re saying is that there’s land masses, that in our case is the town of Nambour which is crying out for investment, and people and business, that could take some of the load. But that’s not even been considered.”

Back to the future

Australian cities used to be well serviced by tram networks.

According to studies, Australians made more than one billion annual trips by tram in 1945.

But Ms Huddy said things started to change in the decades that followed.

“California highway engineers came to Australia to teach us how to build highways like they did. Overnight, the tram tracks were bitumened,” she says.

“So for the last 70 years now we’ve been planning only for a car and the opportunity truly to retrofit light rail in is magnificent.”

She said it was a rare opportunity for regional cities, adding that other cities around the state could be in line for similar projects.

“The ability to get around in multiple modes is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to your community.”

“I think Townsville would be primed for it, and I bet you Queensland Transport thinks the same.”

Article source: Queensland Property Investor